With this past semester’s abrupt transition to e-learning, educators and students alike have tried to make meaningful use of e-learning platforms that seem to lack in resources, intimacy and flow. Targeting these problems head-on can be especially difficult in a virtual classroom. And though these challenges might seem universal, there is no singular way they manifest.
Take for example, the issue of resources. Something as rudimentary as not having personal access to the hardware, software or broadband services needed to succeed in an e-learning classroom is an immediate concern. Students who relied on access to public spaces like libraries, and loaned technology have suddenly found themselves cut off not only from access to a workspace outside of the classroom but to the classroom itself. Others have all of the hardware they need but lack the broadband to support e-learning.
How can we learn remotely when professors and students are having difficulty with the most rudimentary steps of creating and accessing a classroom?
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Learning from Trial and Error
Determining how to use online learning spaces, once they can be accessed, has also been a process of trial and error. Classroom spaces are used for large discussions, small group work and as exam spaces. During this rapid transition, educators have been trying desperately to use and implement the most effective platforms and features to maintain online classrooms similar in structure to their onsite classes.
Live lectures offer a structure similar to that of an in-person class and include opportunities for real-time questions and answers. The difficulty is facilitating a space where students can feel as comfortable interacting with their professors virtually as they would in a physical classroom. But background noises at home, interruptions from other students and lagging video and audio make online class meetings feel anything but organic.
Small group collaborations have also been difficult, as instructors are learning to navigate videoconferencing features that allow them to break out into smaller chat rooms. (I have only encountered this specific feature in Zoom, although other services offer something comparable.) When done wrong, this can be disruptive to the flow of conversation during class, and it can take quite a bit of time to coordinate in larger classes.
For example, in a lab section with roughly 45 students, breakout rooms could take anywhere between 10 to 15 minutes to organize. This is because the rooms were not coordinated prior to meeting times.
Small group work is critical to the structure of some classes. When this is the case, instructors and teaching assistants should take extra measures to ensure they know how to use their online learning platforms. This way, they can make the transitions to breakout rooms as smooth as possible.
An alternative method for some professors is prerecording lectures, which allows students to watch class videos at their own pace. While this seems like the most accommodating and accessible option, students are then tasked with creating the structure of a classroom on their own and don’t have access to real-time opportunities to ask their professors questions.
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More Face-to-Face Communication with Professors
Email communication, while an option, is not quite the same as having a brief face-to-face exchange for quick questions. I hope professors will offer more opportunities for face-to-face communication, like virtual office hours, in the future.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to these issues because each classroom, professor and student is different. Although the present situation makes it difficult to establish structured virtual classrooms, more students are developing the habits necessary to thrive in this new learning environment.
The beauty of an e-learning classroom is its malleability, and the potential for it to be as accommodating, accessible and collaborative as possible to meet the needs of professors and students. Improvement comes from a willingness from students to take full advantage of platform features and offer substantive feedback — and from instructors working to determine best practices for virtual classrooms. While we are making the most of being alone together, we should also be striving to find new ways of connecting to one another.
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